Cloned Websites and Shady Operators — Beware Hotel Booking Scams
So, I needed to book a hotel in London. In fact, I intended to book a hotel I had stayed at several times before (Unfortunately, they changed their policies in a way that, combined with something they did handling this, that I won’t stay there again).
I went to the hotel’s booking site, booked my stay, then got the confirmation.
The date was wrong.
And the confirmation came from what I, at the time, thought was their e-commerce people. I called and I was told I absolutely could not either cancel or change the reservation.
I told them I was not going to be using that date, and that I was not paying for a room I was not using. We were booking months out.
I’d been got.
I had been scammed.
I’m not proud of this, but I’m admitting it here because what got me was a very common hotel booking scam. It ended up with BBB complaints, assorted nastiness, the hotel trying to get me to send them a photocopy of my credit card via email (a complete no no, by the way, never do this), and a credit card dispute that was ultimately resolved in my favor. I then booked a room with a different hotel.
What is the Scam?
The scam is fairly simple. Somebody sets up a hotel booking agency. Then they pay for ads on the keywords for all the hotels working with them to ensure that their site shows up first when somebody searches on the name of the site.
Then they copy the appearance of the hotel’s own site. Somebody sees their site, clicks on it, thinks they’re on the hotel’s site, and books through them. The scammers target both small boutique hotels and major global chains.
In this case, I did actually have a booking, just one I wasn’t allowed to change or cancel, and which was for the wrong date (to be fair, I don’t know if they changed the date or if my mouse slipped when booking). In a variant of the scam, there is no hotel booking agency. Numerous travelers have arrived at a hotel only to find they have no room.
How do you Avoid the Scam?
Most scams only catch people who are elderly or infrequently use the service. This scam got me, and I like to think I’m pretty savvy about travel. In other words, it’s a tricky one, but here are my suggestions to not be got:
- Don’t click on Google search ads posted by the hotel. Scroll down and click on their actual website. The link marked with that little Ad symbol is much more likely to be a scam.
- Check the URL carefully. Click on it to look at the full URL. Make sure it starts with https and that the little padlock indicating a secure site is present; scammers often forget to properly secure their sites. Make sure the URL is hotel.com not booking.hotel.com or reservations.hotel.com or any such variance. “National reservation center” is also a red flag. Make sure there are no typos in the URL — this is called typosquatting and is a common scammer technique.
- If you see, part of the way through the booking, anything indicating that this is a Limited Time Offer, back out. It’s probably not the hotel website.
- If the site is charging the full payment in advance, back out. It’s not standard practice for hotels to do so. If it’s a special deal they might, but double check the cancellation terms.
- If in doubt, call the customer service number. If they claim to be the hotel, ask for information the hotel would have but a third party site wouldn’t…directions to/from the train station, restaurant recommendations, etc.
- After making your booking, call the hotel to make sure they actually got it.
- Always use a credit card to hold your booking or pay anything in advance, not a debit card. Just in case.
What to do if you get “Got”?
- First of all, you need to do due diligence. Keep copies of any and all correspondence with both the scammers and the hotel. In some cases this may be needed to file a dispute. Keep as much as you can in writing rather than verbal. If you can snag a screenshot of the site, do. These sites often mysteriously disappear after a complaint is made.
- If the scammers are in the US, find out which state they are in and file a complaint with the state’s BBB. If they are a shady operator rather than an out and out fake company, then they may actually care enough about their reputation to fix things before it all goes public on the BBB site. It doesn’t take long.
- File a dispute with your credit card company. They do expect you to have tried to resolve it first, which is why I recommend a BBB complaint. If you have evidence the company doesn’t actually exist, get it. Your credit card company may ask for copies of correspondence, or they may not. In my case they didn’t, because they were getting a plethora of complaints about the company concerned.
- Have your credit card company put a fraud watch on your account. In some cases these fake sites harvest and sell credit card numbers. In my case they didn’t (although they kept sending me their email newsletter for months after I asked to be removed), but it has happened. You may need to replace your card.
- Don’t be embarrassed. It happens to a lot of people — this is a common scam because, unfortunately, it tends to work.
As a side note; always book directly through the hotel. Even when booking through a reputable third party, bad things can happen, including your reservation not being confirmed or valid, or special requests not getting to the hotel. It’s particularly important to book through the hotel if you need an accessible room.